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Mar 14, 2023

Most people come into education familiar with classroom management and curriculum, but the concept of Profound Knowledge changes the way you view the entire field and your part in it. In the second episode of the Deming in Schools Case Study, Andrew and John talk about applying the System of Profound Knowledge to education. 

0:00:02.0 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz, and I'll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today, I'm continuing my discussion with John Dues, who is part of the new generation of educators striving to apply Dr. Deming's principles to unleash student joy in learning. The topic for today is applying Deming's system of profound knowledge in education. John, take it away.

0:00:26.8 John Dues: Andrew, it's great to be back. And excited to talk about this. One of the things I was talking about after... Thinking about after our last conversation was a moment I had where I realized as I worked with some senior leaders here is we have these two buckets of knowledge, one bucket I would call subject matter knowledge, and we talked about this a little bit last time, by subject matter, I don't mean knowing, reading or social studies or writing, but I mean the things that you need to know in your field, so for us it's classroom management, how to deliver a lesson, how to design a curriculum, those types of things, and that's always sort of been a part of my work and gained proficiency in that bucket over time, but what I realized in studying Deming is there's this whole other bucket or type of knowledge, what Deming called Profound Knowledge and that was missing across most of my career, and it was a revelation to understand that, "Hey, we need both of these things together to have any chance at improving our schools."

0:01:35.4 AS: It's interesting because the whole focus in most of education is to become a subject matter expert, and that's what's rewarded, that's what we're doing. And this whole way of, how do we see the world? Is such a unique thing. Maybe you can just go through a little bit on the system of profound knowledge as when you first came to it, and what does it mean to you?


0:02:04.4 JD: Yeah, I've been studying it for a handful of years now. Increasingly, it became this sort of foundational philosophy, and it really changed how I view the world, honestly, it wasn't only sort of in my work, although that's sort of where I started thinking most about Deming's ideas. It changed also sort of how I thought about my personal life, family, my own kids in school and their experience in school, so I had a profound impact on just about everything I was doing in my life, that's pretty foundational to discover a philosophy like this...

0:02:51.3 AS: Yeah, that's... I remember when I first understand... For me, it was variation and randomness that really kind of hit me because I was also working in the stock market, and I could see that there was a lot of randomness in the movement of stock prices, and then it was like all of a sudden, what I learned from the randomness aspect and the variation aspect was just like, it's like there's carpeting that we're walking on that nobody even realizes it's underlying everything, and it is this randomness, and we are trained to reject randomness because we're rugged individualists who are setting our own path and it's up to us to make a difference. And that type of thinking basically has to reject the role of randomness, so I know what you're saying about... That started to change the way I viewed the world. Continue on.

0:03:54.2 JD: I think building off what you're saying, there's a variation component to that, and that was sort of an entry point for me too as I read Donald Wheeler's Understanding Variation, which is sort of completely changed how I looked at numbers and data in our work here in schools, but I also think of what I'm hearing in what you're saying is complex systems, and so I think there was sort of an appreciation for systems thinking prior to Deming, but not in the same way, but I think for a lot of folks it's if we do A to B then C is gonna happen. And that's just not how things sort of unfolded in a complex system, be it schools or a company or a society or whatever you may be looking at, if you do A, then that may impact B, C, D, E, F, G in a certain way, and the outcome is gonna be impacted by all of those things, all of those changes, and I think that's sort of... You can start to see that when you start to understand variation, and then that other component, or first component of Deming's Profound Knowledge is Appreciation for a System.

0:05:07.4 JD: And I think that's sort of what he's getting at, that it's really hard to find causal links between things and if we're gonna search for those, then we need to appreciate our organizations as a system, how all of the departments or all of the grade levels in the case of a school are working together or not, and how something you do in one part of that system can impact positively or negatively, other parts of the system, even if what you did in the part of the system was a positive for that part of the system, they can actually destroy the system, and so all of these things were revelations or at least confirmations of things that maybe were in the back of my mind, before I had this understanding in writing from studying Deming's philosophy.

0:06:00.7 AS: And for the listeners or the viewers who aren't familiar with the System of Profound Knowledge, maybe you can just review the four points of it or the four parts, a little bit more.

0:06:12.2 JD: Yeah, System of Profound Knowledge. So four components, Appreciation for a System, Knowledge about Variation, Theory of knowledge and Psychology, and he called them a System of Profound Knowledge because the four components work together, that's the system part. And Profound Knowledge, what I learned over time, is that, what he meant by that is just sort of the deep understanding that comes through viewing your organization through the lens of Profound Knowledge, so when you bring those four things together, you get a different view of your organization, than without Profound Knowledge. And without Profound Knowledge, you are often misled, you often don't know when to react or not to react to something that's going on in your organization or system, with Profound Knowledge you now have a management philosophy by which to interpret that data that comes streaming at you, no matter what industry you're in, and gives you a way to map out how to react or again, not to react to that data.

0:07:18.8 AS: It makes me think there's a saying in Thai language about a frog under a coconut, and when you lift up the coconut, the frog kind of wants the coconut back on because that's their world. And I think about when you really come across the System of Profound Knowledge and you understand it, it's like that coconut comes off and you realize, Oh my God, I am part of a much bigger system, and all of a sudden things just open up and what was your experience when you first kind of started really realizing how this all works together.

0:08:00.3 JD: Well, maybe unlike the frog, I didn't wanna unsee it or I didn't want to be recovered, however, there certainly was... Well one, it took time for me to sort of understand what exactly Dr. Deming was saying, and I'm still trying to understand that fully, but the hardest thing was probably talking to people, really smart people, about Profound Knowledge and maybe them not sort of seeing the importance of it or the same level of importance that I thought that they should see or where we'll talk about it, it would be well-received, but then people would turn around and sort of revert back to the old way of thinking. And for me, it was just realizing that this just takes repeated practice, because it is really a completely new way of thinking.

0:09:00.9 JD: It's a completely new way to look at data or your systems, it's a completely new way to think about how do you bring new ideas to your organization, how do you test those ideas, it's really getting away from simple things like setting a goal without a method, it's appreciating the psychology of introducing changes to your organization. I found people are generally very open to new things, what they're not open to is being sort of yanked about constantly when we try this thing and that thing, and education has the same sort of problem in this area that other sectors like healthcare do, where the frontline people, teachers in our case, nurses in the case of healthcare where they're often being pulled this way and that with new initiatives to the point they get this initiative fatigue will wear people out and burn people out and then they leave because each leader comes in with their own pet idea and it's not grounded in this sort of solid philosophical foundation.

0:10:13.3 AS: One of the things that's interesting about the system of profound knowledge is that it can be a bit overwhelming for someone who's first coming upon it because it's like, Oh my God, there's a much bigger aim, and one of the reasons why we don't think in a systems way and why we do think silos is because it's easier, and so for some people it can feel like, Oh God, this is just overwhelming, and I'm just curious what your perspectives are on that, either for yourself or the people that you're working with there, and how do we make sure that you don't get overwhelmed by it?

0:10:57.6 JD: Yeah, it's a challenge because I originally came to the Deming Institute website and the profound knowledge page and went away because it didn't make sense to me initially, and it was two years later when I came back, and not that it was sort of some divine revelation, but I slowly, over time, it started to sink in, something caught my attention that this was worthy of study. So one thing I read, Dr. Deming said, you don't need to be eminent in all four areas or even any one of the four areas, but it does require serious study, so you're not gonna understand it in a day or a week or a month. I would also say anybody that gets serious about studying this philosophy, I would highly recommend reaching out to somebody that is further along in their understanding, and that's sort of a turning point, I think I mentioned in the last episode. Reaching out to Kelly Allen, who turned me on to David Langford that accelerated my learning, 'cause I could ask specific questions, and David could give me specific applications of Deming's ideas in schools, and that certainly helped to clarify a lot of things for me.

0:12:08.3 JD: So that's something I would highly recommend, but I would read widely, watch the videos, you can go to a four-day or sorry, two and half day seminar that the Institute does, and then reaching out to someone that is further along is something I'd highly recommend.

0:12:27.1 AS: Yeah, great advice. And just this podcast already is a starting point for the listeners out there.

0:12:33.2 JD: Yep, absolutely.

0:12:34.8 AS: One of the things that I say to my students in my valuation master class, they come to my class because it's like, Andrew, you got 30 years of experience as a financial analyst, and you were voted number one and you... This and that, and I really wanna learn from you. And when I come into class, I announce a couple of the things... And one of the things is I say, You Are Always Wrong. And I call it YAAW. And I try to help the students understand it, in the world of finance, there is no precision, like in the world of physics or the law of gravity or something like that, that you're always going to be wrong and therefore don't freak out over that. Understand that it's a system. The second thing that I tell the students, and this one I think really gets them, they don't really figure it out until the end, and that is in my class and in the world of finance, what I teach is, if I'm successful as a teacher in this specific area that I'm teaching, if you feel less confident when you finish my course, I've succeeded.

0:13:48.7 AS: And I think that students freak out because of I'm here to be more confident Andrew, and what I'm exposing them to is that it's a constant... We're walking on quick sand. We're operating in a world where even in the world of finance, just observing the world of finance, observing market prices and stuff can influence actions that we're taking in the market... Can influence market prices. So the complexity level is so high.

0:14:27.1 JD: Yeah, yeah, one of the things that makes me think of is sort of a... I don't know if I'd call it paradox, but one of the early places that I went even prior to sort of coming across, Deming's work is the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and they have it as their mission to bring the science of improvement to the education sector. And they have an annual Improvement Summit. The first time I went, I realized that they had this footer on all of their materials and it said, "Probably wrong, definitely incomplete." And that was a really great entry way into the science of improvement because that's the mentality you need when you start any type of improvement work, improvement project in your organization, and I sort of stole that idea and stuck it on all our materials.

0:15:27.8 JD: And I think the reaction from a lot of people first is similar to how you're describing the reaction of your students is that, wait a second, aren't you supposed to be an expert, don't you know what you're talking about? And I said, "No, that's not what this is about." This is about humbling yourself, realizing the complexity of the organizations that we're working in, and that at the outset of any improvement project, that there are gonna be things that you discover along the way that were completely unknown at the start, and so if you don't take that mindset and you rush in and you're sure of yourself, then you are set up for failure from the beginning, in my opinion.

0:16:09.7 AS: So if we go back to the title of this episode, Applying Deming's System of Profound Knowledge in Education, part of it is it starts to open you up beyond subject matter, and also it starts to help you understand that there's just a much more, a bigger world out there of influences that are driving us, and I think one of the things that's interesting about that is it... Young managers in the world of business are seeming to latch on to KPIs and feeling like it is a simple solution, we just define everybody's KPI, we nail them with it, we repeat it to them, we have them write it out in their goals and we measure it, and if they don't achieve it. Boom. And what Deming is teaching is just the opposite, that when you understand the system of profound knowledge, you understand that optimizing the output of any organization is a much more complex reality than just putting a KPI and a number on it.

0:17:18.8 JD: Yeah, I think of a colleague of a contemporary of Dr. Deming, who is still doing great work, Dr. Donald Wheeler said something to the effect of goal setting, KPI setting, goal setting is often an act of desperation, meaning like you don't know what else to do, so you set a goal, you don't have a method, you don't have a theory for how to improve, so you set this goal and then say something to the effect of, "I don't care how you get it done. Just get it done." Right, and then all hell breaks loose. And what do you think he's talking about is, if you don't understand the capability of your system, if you don't understand whatever area you're talking about, whatever area that KPI is in, if you don't understand how that data is varying over time, if you don't understand if there are just common causes, there are special causes in that data, you have no idea how to react nor do you know what your system was capable of the first place.

0:18:26.1 JD: That's sort of one of the sessions I led with leadership team here, and everybody kind of looks and says, Well, aren't we supposed to set goals? and there's really nothing wrong with setting goals in and of themselves, but we often set them in ways that are completely detached from reality, both in the magnitude of improvement that we're expecting and is a lack of understanding of how that same data has performed over time.

0:18:52.5 AS: Yeah, and it reminds me of Dr. Deming's statement of 'by what method?'

0:18:56.2 JD: By what method, yeah.

0:18:58.9 AS: So for, in wrapping up our discussion, I wanna go back and review some of what we've just talked about, so we're talking about applying the system of profound knowledge in education, and what you've talked about is the idea of coming into education, most people are very familiar with subject matter knowledge about classroom management and curriculum management and all that, but what was missing when you started your journey was this concept of Profound Knowledge, and once you started to understand it, it changed the way that you viewed the world, and then we just briefly talked about the idea, I wrote down something which was "probably wrong, definitely incomplete", and I would say that there are plenty of places where they think "definitely right. Probably complete."


0:19:47.3 AS: And then you just mentioned the idea of setting goals, and I think Deming is not against goals, it's that goal is just one measure, I would say, if you set goals for individuals that incentivize them individually, you've created a big problem of competition, but most importantly, I think what you're saying is the idea of just setting a goal like, We wanna increase test scores by X or in my business, I want revenue growth to be up by 20% next year, the question really becomes by what method is there anything else that you would add to wrap up our discussion?

0:20:28.2 JD: Yeah, I think goals or quotas, especially if you're optimizing one part of the system, very likely to destroy the system as a whole, or at least sub-optimize it make it worse. I think Deming said something to the fact of quotas can be a fortress against improvement. Right. I think he was exactly right, because people start to do all kinds of weird things when you start to set quotas or goals, especially again, if they're incentivized as an individual, whether that's an individual worker or an individual department, things start to sort of happen in the opposite of what you wanted to happen when you do things like set goals, without that appreciation for the capability of the system in the first place, or an understanding of the data or an idea for how to improve, because it's like, well, if our goal... If we're gonna set a goal to increase test scores, let's say by 10% next year, why don't we do it this year? If we knew how to do that, what were we waiting on, why do we think we can do it next year, if we couldn't do it this year...

0:21:33.8 AS: Great points. Well, John, on behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion and for listeners, remember to go to to continue your journey. This is your host Andrew Stotz, and I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming; people are entitled to joy in work.